Before last summer, about all William & Mary sophomore Samantha Boateng knew about her maternal grandfather, the late Francis Yeboah of Ghana, was that he had a lot of money and a lot of children.
To fill in some of the blanks, Boateng applied for the Concord Traveling Scholarship for Creative Writers. She won. The scholarship, made possible by a donation from Anne Rivers Gunton ’00 and David L. Gunton ’99, enabled her to spend a month in Ghana last summer and learn more about her relative’s unique story.
And what a story it is, one she’ll share on Oct. 23 with a presentation at 5:30 p.m., at Tucker Theater. The event is free and open to the public, with a reception to follow.
There are parts of her grandfather’s story that remain murky, for while he left detailed accounts of his business dealings, there was far less insight available regarding his personal life.
What she learned, and what the prospective history and English major will write about to fulfill the scholarship’s requirements, is that after working for British surveyors at a very young age, Yeboah got into the timber business on Ghana’s Gold Coast.
He’d cut down trees, hire locals who had vehicles to haul the loads to market, make a tidy profit and buy more land. The product of a small, impoverished village in the Ashanti region, he kept repeating the process until he owned thousands of acres, by which time he had also begun cocoa farming.
“He made a lot of money, and it grew even bigger,” Boateng said. “I was told that he’d have rows of cars just filled with huge [amounts of] timber going into town to sell. Timber helped him become wealthy then do a bunch of other things.”
Ghanaian records are few. There is no definitive documentation of the day her grandfather was born. It’s generally believed that he was around 80 when he died in 2007. In that same vein, Boateng said she was told that Yeboah had accumulated most of his industrial holdings and his vast wealth by the time he was 25.
Everything about his story seems unusual. Yeboah built a village, called Yeboahkrom, in which his workers lived. He added a school for their children, then multiple schools throughout the country.
“As he got money, he didn’t forget where he came from,” Boateng said. “Even to this day, his workers are loyal to our family. My grandfather didn't believe he was above anybody. In Ghana, people eat together out of one pot. If someone works for you, usually you don’t eat with him. But he would eat with his workers. They were like his family, his brothers and sisters.”
That is the portion of her grandfather’s life she will focus on in her presentation, she said.
“For him to rise above, to become a person who was educated, a person who was wealthy when everyone else was struggling, there’s a story to that,” she said.
One area Boateng is struggling to understand is her grandfather’s personal relationships. She said he adored his wife — “no one came before her, she was above anyone else in his life” — and she still lives in the home he built. But when she could not conceive children, he turned to six concubines, who provided him with 16 children.
“That makes it such a deeper story,” she said. “I’m not really sure his mindset behind it; in my writing I try to come up with why he wanted to ... Was the first time unfaithfulness? Next time, did he just decide that he wanted children to give his wealth to? … It’s crazy that she was there and all of this happened. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Boateng, with her mother’s guidance, has embarked on a project in which she has already built two libraries in Ghanaian villages, with ground broken on a third in the large metropolitan city of Kumasi. The latest has 3,000 books in Yeboahkrom, all in English, many collected by her high school alma mater in Northern Virginia.
“It’s the 10-year anniversary of my grandfather’s death, so everything is being done around that village,” Boateng said. “It’s rural. There’s a lot of work that could be done, but since I’m doing this project, I said, ‘We can take a library there.’
“A lot of people were so excited about it. They had gone to that school; without that school they wouldn’t have been where they are now. I wanted to take action.”